- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

March is the month when Hollywood honors its own at the annual Academy Awards gala. Yesterday, 3,000 miles away, with less hype and glitter, Congress premiered its yearly spring production debate on the federal budget resolution. And while no lawmaker will compete with Michael Caine for his performance in "The Quiet American," the rhetoric and hyperbole during the debate over the next several weeks should qualify some for an Oscar.
The budget debate promises high drama and theatrics, including emotional speeches and even some tear-jerking moments. Many will ask, "Who squandered the surplus?" or "Why critical investments are under funded?" Yet, amid this fiscal blame game, there are other critical reasons to pass a budget resolution. Astute observers know there are important institutional and symbolic purposes for a fiscal blueprint. These subtle nuances are often lost in the bombast. Nevertheless, they are important pretexts to pass a budget in a timely manner.
Doing so keeps the fiscal policy curtain call on schedule. Congress failed to complete the appropriations process last year, because Democrats in the Senate, bloated and undisciplined as the latter-day Orson Wells, were unable to complete a budget. As a result, lawmakers were still struggling to finish work on last year's spending bills when they returned to Washington two months ago a direct consequence of the collapse of the budget process. This was the first time the House passed a budget and the Senate did not causing ripple effects through the entire congressional fiscal policy-making apparatus.
Congressional Republicans plan to pass a budget blueprint through the House and the Senate, and hammer out differences in a conference committee by the April 15th deadline set by the 1974 Budget Act. Congress is notoriously late in passing the annual budget, one of the reasons why the appropriations process gets bogged down year after year (Congress has only met the April 15 deadline five times in the last 28 years).
One of the best arguments for passing the plans crafted by Senate Budget Chairman Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican, and House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle, Iowa Republican, is to avoid the kind of fiscal policy train wreck lawmakers went through last year.
There is another critical institutional reason why lawmakers must adopt a budget resolution in a timely manner. Almost 30 years ago, in the midst of Watergate, Congress enacted the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act so it could compete with the executive branch in the fiscal policy process. Congress used to respond to the President's budget in an ad hoc manner, with House and Senate committees all moving in different directions. The 1974 Act created the Congressional Budget Office, a new budget process and rules, as well as the House and Senate Budget Committees all measures to help the legislative branch compete effectively and equally in setting fiscal priorities with the executive branch.
Failure by the Senate Democrats last year to produce a budget ceded a great deal of institutional power from the Congress to the Executive. The President told Congress last fall it could spend no more than $395.5 billion in non-defense discretionary spending. Congress agreed with the guidelines, but one long-time Hill veteran said that concession amounted to the "death of the congressional budget process." Under the Constitution, Congress controls the purse strings. Yielding control over those top-line numbers tipped the balance of power back in the direction of the pre-1974 levels. Congress should reassert its role and ensure its part in the process. Passing a timely budget resolution is a sure way to do that.
Finally, the only way to balance the budget is to spur growth. The budgets unveiled this week by Messrs. Nickles and Nussle show a path to balance assuming improved economic growth. The route to a growing economy is clear spending restraint and lower taxes.
When Congress passed a balanced budget plan in 1997, forecasts predicted surpluses in five years. Due to the spending restraint and growth measures like capital gains tax cuts, the economy grew and revenues soared in record amounts. Consequently, the budget balanced in two years three years ahead of schedule.
While we will hear a lot of award-winning performances blaming the President about squandering the surplus or underfunding necessary priorities, Congress should keep the budget process in perspective. Trying to forecast spending, revenue projections and economic growth over a ten-year period is a lot like predicting academy Award winners before producing the film. So, soliloquies aside, award an Oscar to those who vote to keep the congressional trains running on time, reassert legislative control over the purse strings and balance the budget in the only way to do it by growing the economy.

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